NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
They need to see a quarterback with two back surgeries, who missed a game last season with two transverse process fractures and who had rib cartilage damage, and start wondering about Romo's successor.
"We do have to look to the future relative to quarterback," Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. "It's starting a time frame where a guy could come in and be a good backup. Look at how Romo evolved into the guy he is today. He did a little time with the clip board."
Of course, the same thoughts were espoused in 2014 and 2013 and probably 2012. And the Cowboys didn't draft a quarterback. Bryce Petty's name has been bandied about, and he is expected to visit Valley Ranch. The Cowboys have other private workouts with quarterbacks coming up, too.
Maybe this is the year they actually take a quarterback in the draft.
But the likelihood of the Cowboys finding Romo's heir in the middle to late rounds is slim. Extremely slim. The odds-aren't-worth-it-slim. There are two starting quarterbacks currently in the NFL who were picked after the third round. Romo is one and he wasn't drafted. Tom Brady is the other and he went in the sixth round.
There are third-round starters, such as Russell Wilson, Nick Foles and, potentially, Ryan Mallett. If Mallett doesn't win the starting job with the Houston Texans, then Brian Hoyer would be the third starter after the third round -- he went undrafted. Josh McCown, who is likely to be the Cleveland Browns starter, has bounced around, but he was a third-round pick.
The Cowboys have selected three quarterbacks since Troy Aikman: Billy Musgrave, Quincy Carter and Stephen McGee. They traded for Drew Henson in 2004 and that didn't work out.
This isn't to say the ghosts of Musgrave, Carter and McGee should prevent the Cowboys from taking a quarterback. But it is to say the level of expectations for taking a quarterback in the middle rounds needs to be ratcheted way down. The Cowboys hoped McGee could develop into a No. 2 quarterback and that didn't happen.
The days of developing a quarterback seem long ago. The Green Bay Packers did it with Aaron Rodgers behind Brett Favre. Philip Rivers sat for two years behind Drew Brees with the San Diego Chargers. Those guys were taken in 2005 and 2004.
Most teams are drafting their guys in the first and second rounds and if not playing them in Week 1 of their rookie seasons, then very soon in their rookie seasons. Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr started as rookies last season.
It sounds quaint, the notion of a quarterback holding a clip board, taking mental notes as he watches. It's just not reality.
Let's say Romo plays another three years through 2017 when he is 37. In 2018, that's when the Cowboys will really need to find his successor.
IRVING, Texas -- When DeMarco Murray signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said if there was no salary cap the NFL's reigning rushing champion would have remained a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys weren't willing to offer Murray more than $12 million guaranteed, which was at least $6 million less than what he got from the Eagles. The Cowboys can talk about cost of living and no state taxes and all that, but it doesn't trump an extra $6 million.
Speaking at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, Jones addressed the Murray departure.
"He's an outstanding football player," Jones said in this Dallas Morning News story. "Under the right circumstances it would have been good for everybody for him to be here. On the other hand, our best chance of getting better was to make the decision we made."
This doesn't get the Cowboys better offensively. It might help defensively. They were able to sign Greg Hardy. They added role pieces in Jasper Brinkley, Andrew Gachkar through free agency and cornerback Corey White through waivers.
One of the storylines last season was how Murray made the defense better. By running the ball so much and so effectively, the Cowboys' defense did not have to see as much action.
Jones repeated an oft-told story about when he first bought the Cowboys and a reporter tagged along with him on a private jet only to see Jones get into a muddy Bronco.
"You can't have it all," Jones has said more than 20 times. "The way you get an airplane is to drive the five-year old Bronco."
With a salary cap you can't have it all, but the notion the Cowboys couldn't have re-signed Murray is false. They could have done it. They could have paid him whatever they wanted to pay him. Not only could they have paid Murray, they could have had Hardy, too.
There were/are plenty of salary-cap tricks available to have made that happen. It would have been costly in terms of their future salary-cap situations, but not impossible.
What it would have done is added another high cap figures to the offense.
"We have great receivers. We have a great quarterback. We have a great offensive line," Jones said. "We're trying to get more defense so you have to make some tough decisions. "We felt like this was our best decision or we wouldn't have done it. Certainly, our players and everybody in our organization understands the concept that you can't have everything."
Until Bryant signs the franchise-tag tender, which would guarantee him $12.823 million for 2015, he is under no obligation to show up for anything, even the mandatory June mini-camp.
“I’m not worried about that at all, and it’s because of how much he loves the game, how much he knows that preparation, practice, all of that improves him,” owner Jerry Jones said in this Star-Telegram story. “He’s at a time in his career where he’s physically still very much improving, can get better. The biggest reason I want a long-term agreement with Dez is so we’ll have a deal with him for a long term -- but not as far as impacting what we’re doing this year in terms of what Dez’s performance will be or what we are as a team. We’ve got that in place with the franchise. So I’m not worried. I know how much he loves to play football, I know how much he loves his teammates, I know how much he loves his team and I know how much money he’s getting. With all of that, you play.”
The Cowboys and Bryant's agents, Tom Condon and Kim Miale, have not had talks regarding a long-term deal for Bryant after having a meeting with Jerry and Stephen Jones at Valley Ranch after the draft. The Cowboys have until July 15 to sign Bryant to a long-term deal and if they don’t, Bryant would have to play the season on the tag and likely face the possibility of being tagged again in 2016.
If the Cowboys tag Bryant next year, he would stand to make roughly $28 million over the next two years. It seems logical to follow that the guaranteed money on a long-term deal for Bryant would be well north of that figure.
But the Cowboys aren’t the only team with decisions to make on wide receivers. The Denver Broncos put the franchise tag on Demaryius Thomas. The Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals have Julio Jones and A.J. Green, respectively, entering the final years of their contracts.
Jerry Jones acknowledged the franchise tag is not the best option for the Cowboys because of the cap space eats up.
While others seem to obsess about Bryant’s future with the Cowboys, Jones isn’t.
“I don’t see angst there at all,” Jones said. "I hear angst from media, but I don’t see angst. And angst is equal -- we both would like to have a long-term contract. But there’s no doubt in my mind that, without being presumptuous, without doing anything, that Dez will be on the field and a Dallas Cowboy under either of the circumstances -- long-term or franchise agreement. There’s no doubt. That won’t impact us trying to get a long-term agreement in place and a long-term commitment to the Cowboys and a commitment for Dez. I don’t see any of that, absent the other.”
IRVING, Texas -- This season is shaping up as Jason Garrett’s most difficult as Dallas Cowboys head coach.
Harder than 2011, when he took over on a full-time basis? There was no offseason program because of the lockout from the collective bargaining agreement talks. There was no way for Garrett to truly implement his program with an offseason full of workouts, organized team activities and minicamp.
There are burning issues every season. Last year, the Cowboys had to deal with Tony Romo coming back from major back surgery. They said goodbye to DeMarcus Ware and did not have a true replacement. In May, they lost Sean Lee for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
But this year Garrett will have to navigate many different situations that could prove tricky.
When the Cowboys placed the franchise tag on Dez Bryant, a Dez Watch started. Will he show up for the voluntary offseason program? It’s an unknown. Bryant wants a long-term contract and would be well within his right to not show up for any part of the offseason.
He has to use his leverage and the only leverage he has is not showing up.
If he doesn’t get a long-term deal before the July 15 deadline, does he show up for training camp? Until he signs the tag, he doesn’t have to show up for anything, which is something his agent, Tom Condon, has pointed out.
Bryant might be the closest thing to irreplaceable on the roster after Tony Romo.
Garrett has already laid out the expectations for Greg Hardy in his first comments this week from the NFL owners meetings. The signing just increases the already hot spotlight on the Cowboys and it will bring a segment of attention from outside football. With the added attention to the NFL’s increased personal conduct policy, every move made by Hardy on and off the field will be watched and judged.
Brandon Carr’s agent, Ben Dogra, told the Star Telegram that the cornerback will not accept a pay cut from his $8 million salary. At present it’s a negotiation tactic. The Cowboys don’t have to address Carr’s contract yet. They can act like it is business as usual, but the longer the offseason goes, they can put a squeeze on Carr because the money and job opportunities will dry up.
While it’s conceivable the Cowboys could pay Carr $8 million, his level of play hasn’t warranted that kind of money.
When the Cowboys said goodbye to a player Garrett never wanted to lose, DeMarco Murray, they created an on-field issue that may or may not be solved by taking a running back early in the draft. Garrett can swear the Cowboys’ style of play won’t change in March, but if they don’t have a running back or running backs to come close to what Murray provided, then the offense will fall completely on Romo’s shoulders.
Expectations around the Cowboys are always high, but coming off a 12-4 finish in 2014 and a playoff win, the expectations will be ratcheted up even more. And the Cowboys should have a more difficult schedule than 2014 when they were matched up with the AFC South.
While it’s never easy in the NFL, it is easier to take a team that Garrett inherited in 2011 and turn it into what it became in 2014. The harder step is the next step.
Bill Parcells said he often felt like a fireman because he had to put out so many fires.
Garrett should know how that feels this year. Some of it comes with the dinner as the Cowboys’ coach. There is always something. Garrett’s single-minded focus on being good today has allowed him to avoid traps that have befallen other coaches.
But it’s one thing to deal with one major fire. It’s another to have to deal with multiple fires.
Romo is an equity investor in the 2015 National Fantasy Football Convention that will be held July 10-12 at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, which will bring fantasy football fans together with more than 100 active players for autograph signings, question-and-answer sessions, parties, and more.
Romo is expected to be joined by teammates Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Sean Lee, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley as of the three-day event held with other stars such as DeMarco Murray, Rob Gronkowski, Eddie Lacy, Antonio Brown and Julio Jones for events that will connect the players with the fantasy football crowd.
“I’m thrilled to be a part of bringing the National Fantasy Football Convention to life,” Romo said in a statement. “Fans have never been closer to the game, and a lot of my buddies already see themselves as an owner or GM, and now fans finally have the chance to interact with all their favorite players and experts.”
For more information, go to www.GoNFFC.com.
Firstly, the signing of Hardy, who was the best pass-rushing defensive end in free agency, is about making the Cowboys a better team. If by signing with the Cowboys, Hardy is able to rehabilitate his image, then that would be a side benefit.
"Ultimately, what we're trying to do is help our football team," coach Jason Garrett told reporters at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix on Monday. "Part of building the team is you make personnel decisions about people who you think can help your football team. You get your arms around who they are as people, who they are as players and you bring them on board. We're in the process right now of building our football team, and this is a decision that we made that we think can help our team."
The Cowboys have faced criticism for signing Hardy to a one-year deal that could be worth as much as $13.1 million because of the players' domestic violence arrest last spring. A North Carolina judge found Hardy guilty of assaulting an ex-girlfriend and communicating threats, but he appealed the decision in order for a jury trial. The case was dismissed after the woman refused to cooperate with authorities.
With the Carolina Panthers, Hardy played just one game last season and remains on the commissioner's exempt list. He is facing a possible suspension as the NFL conducts its own investigation.
The Cowboys structured Hardy's contract in a way so the largest amount of money he will receive comes in the form of roster bonuses for being on the 53-man roster. If he is suspended, he would not receive those bonuses.
Garrett said the Cowboys looked into Hardy's background thoroughly. Defensive staff assistant Turner West was a teammate of Hardy's in high school. They spoke with Hardy's coaches at Ole Miss and with the Panthers. When Hardy visited the Cowboys last week, Garrett said he made it clear they were not recruiting him; that they were finding out about him.
"First off, we understand the seriousness of domestic violence," Garrett said. "We obviously aren't for domestic violence, so let's get that out at the start. If we didn't believe that Greg Hardy could become the right kind of guy, we would not have signed him. We have a lot of confidence in the environment that we create for our players to bring the best out in them.
"Now, it's on us to do our jobs to create the environment to bring the best out in him as a player on the field and as a person off the field. We believe based on all the research we've done, all the due diligence we've done, that he can become the right kind of guy for our team. It is also Greg Hardy's responsibility."
IRVING, Texas -- It’s time again for another offseason version of Five Wonders.
Let’s get right to it:
- The more Greg Hardy plays, the more he gets paid. The better he plays, the more he gets paid. I wonder just how much he will be able to cash in on the $1.804 million in incentives for sacks. If he gets eight sacks, he will earn $500,000. Ten sacks will get him $1 million. Twelve sacks will get him $1.2 million and 14 sacks will get him $1.804 million. Hardy is looking at a possible suspension for an undetermined amount of games as the NFL investigates the domestic violence charge from last year. Let’s assume the NFL hands out a suspension of 4-6 games. He has shown in the past he can get sacks in bunches. He had seven in the final three games of the 2013 season and 10 in the final eight games. He had 6.5 sacks in Games 4-11 in 2012. If he misses games due to a suspension, then eight would seem to be the most he could reach.
- At some point here soon, we should know the opening week primetime games. The Cowboys are always a draw for the primetime audiences, and I would expect them to have five games once again on ESPN, NBC and NFL Network when the schedule comes out. But for the opener I wonder if they will be matched up with the Philadelphia Eagles. That’s a natural game to start a season anyway, but it’s made juicier by DeMarco Murray’s departure for the Eagles as a free agent. Wouldn’t that be a huge ratings getter to kick off the season? Could the regular-season finale come against the Eagles, too? From 2011-13, the Cowboys were in winner-take-all Week 17 games against NFC East foes.
- Hardy has shown the ability to play all over the defensive line in his career. With the Cowboys, I’d expect him to line up mostly at right defensive end, but I wonder what they do at the other defensive end spot. Jeremy Mincey was the starter at right defensive end in 2014 and led the Cowboys with six sacks. He is a stout run defender as well, which makes a move to the left side seem plausible. But what about DeMarcus Lawrence? When the Cowboys drafted him, it was as a right defensive end. They see distinct differences in the needs and wants of the position. Lawrence is stout enough to play on the left side, but he will have to be more disciplined in his approach. Mincey’s experience might give him an edge, but Lawrence has the upside.
- The Cowboys have been good friends with Hard Knocks over the years. They did the show in 2002 and they did it again in 2008. I wonder if they volunteer for duty in 2015. Last year the NFL owners decided they could force a team to take part in the show if a franchise does not volunteer provided the team doesn’t have a first-year head coach, hasn’t been in the playoffs in the past two seasons and has not appeared on Hard Knocks in the past 10 years. Think of the storylines around the Cowboys: Can they repeat their 2014 success? Who replaces DeMarco Murray? Will Dez Bryant be in camp? And then there’s the Hardy situation. OK, I don’t really wonder if they do this, but it would be good TV, right?
- I wonder when the Cowboys look at extending the contract of defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford. He is in the final year of his contract and is one of those young players teams want to keep around for years to come. In the past, the Cowboys have found ways to keep those kinds of players, but last year let Bryant and Murray play out their contracts. The Cowboys gave Bryant the franchise tag and let Murray walk when the money got too big. The Cowboys have to rebuild their defensive line and can’t be in a position to let young players go that they have developed over the years. Coming up with the right price might be tricky because there is still some projecting to do on what Crawford could be, but it’s something they should consider.
Hayden has started the last 32 games at defensive tackle for the Cowboys. He led the defensive line with 52 tackles, according to the coaches’ breakdown. He also had four tackles for loss, eight quarterback pressures and two pass deflections.
The coaching staff likes Hayden’s workmanlike approach, but they could look to upgrade in the draft or have Terrell McClain play a larger role in 2015.
Some fans will celebrate the arrival of the best pass-rusher available in free agency. Some fans will recoil that their team brought in a player who was accused of assaulting and threatening to kill an ex-girlfriend last spring.
The Cowboys have had a history of taking chances on risky character players that pre-dates owner and general manager Jerry Jones. Some have worked out. Some haven’t.
Hardy is the latest risky addition and the social commentary since the Cowboys signed him Wednesday has been plentiful.
WFAA's Dale Hansen gave a passionate take on Wednesday night.
Over at Bleacher Report, Mike Freeman believes the Cowboys have sold their soul for Hardy. Dallas Morning News metro columnist Jacquielynn Floyd wrote she wishes the Cowboys said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and passed on the talented pass-rusher with a troubled past.
Jane McManus at espnW.com believes if the NFL doles out a suspension to Hardy it must stick with the decision. But she wonders if the charges being dropped when Hardy’s ex-girlfriend refused to cooperate with authorities after she received a settlement creates a loophole in the NFL’s new personal conduct policy.
Here is the dilemma for the NFL; How can it show that anything has changed if a man who was found guilty once but had the decision vacated because, the prosecutor alluded, the victim reached a civil settlement with the player? That looks like the way powerful men have always done business.
The potentially fat contract and upbeat statement from Jones only reinforce that impression. So if the NFL hopes to change that narrative, the suspension is the last chance.
The Cowboys were aware of the potential public relations firestorm resulting from the addition of Hardy. It looked in poor form for the team’s television and social media departments to hail the addition of Hardy on Wednesday afternoon as some sort of coronation.
But the Cowboys have been through these situations before. Again, adding players with baggage has not been a thing that's just happened in the Jerry Jones era. They happened when Tom Landry was coach as well (for example: Hollywood Henderson, Lance Rentzel and Bob Hayes). And they will happen again in the future.
There are two sides to this story and we’re not talking about the legal case. There is the balance between indignation for a move like this and giving a player a second chance. I wrote that Josh Brent had every right to play in the NFL again -- I just felt it should not be with the Dallas Cowboys.
I understand why the Cowboys signed Hardy. I believe they did their due diligence. I believe they asked the right questions in their meetings with Hardy. I believe he told them what they wanted to hear.
When Hardy records his first sack some time in September, he will be cheered and all -- perhaps sadly -- will be forgotten and forgiven.
By the time the third week of the regular season rolls around, they will have to account for roughly $8.1 million in the remaining $9.25 million per-game roster bonuses Hardy will receive throughout the season as long as he is on the 53-man roster.
Because he was on the Carolina Panthers' 53-man roster for two weeks in 2014, 14 of the per-game bonuses are considered not-likely-to-be-earned and will hit the cap one week at a time at $578,125 per game. If he is suspended or on injured reserve, the Cowboys would receive cap credits for each game he misses.
So how do the Cowboys get that cushion?
There are several ways. They could sign Dez Bryant to a long-term deal so he doesn't count $12.823 million against the cap on the franchise tag but that does not appear likely at this time. They could gain $8 million in space by designating Brandon Carr a post-June 1 cut, but then they would need a cornerback.
The easiest and most likely way is to restructure the contract of quarterback Tony Romo. The question is when they do it.
As the Cowboys mapped out their offseason plan, they intended to re-work Romo's contract all along, but instead of taking a small chunk of the quarterback's $17 million base salary to avoid larger cap figures in the future, they will likely have to re-do the full amount.
The Cowboys can create about $12.8 million in cap space, but turning $16 million of Romo's base salary into signing bonus, which would trim his salary-cap figure from $27.773 million to $14.973 million.
The good: that money will allow the Cowboys to cover Hardy's roster bonuses, give them money for their draft picks as well as smaller potential signings and their practice squad.
The bad: Romo's cap numbers from 2016-19 will increase by $3.2 million per season. He turns 35 in April and it's always risky to add cap figures on players as they get older.
It's not the best way to manage the cap, but the Cowboys felt like getting a game-changer like Hardy was worth the potential cap implications in the future.
IRVING, Texas -- Officially the Dallas Cowboys have signed five free agents, but none has a salary-cap figure greater than $1.625 million for 2015.
A sixth, fullback Ray Agnew, has agreed to terms, but his base salary should be somewhere close to the NFL minimum once the deal is turned into the league offices.
The five signings chew up $5.69 million in cap space. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cowboys have $5.724 million in cap room remaining.
Linebacker Jasper Brinkley has the highest cap figure of the signings and the Cowboys have guaranteed him $2 million in 2015. He received a $1.25 million base salary and $750,000 of his $1 million base salary is fully guaranteed, which all but guarantees he will be making the 53-man roster.
In 2016, he has a $2 million roster bonus that is due 23 days before the league year starts and a $2 million base salary. He can also earn per-game roster bonuses up to $250,000.
Andrew Gachkar has a $1.6 million salary-cap figure with a $1.2 million signing bonus and $1 million base salary. He has a $3 million base salary in 2016 and can earn an extra $1 million per year in incentives that are unlikely to be met.
Depending on the structure of a possible deal, the Cowboys could chew up all of that remaining space for defensive end Greg Hardy.
The Cowboys will restructure the contract of quarterback Tony Romo at some point. He is set to count $27.773 million against the cap. The Cowboys could create cap space by converting part of Romo's $17 million base salary into a signing bonus but they don't want to do the full amount available because that would affect cap room in the future.
IRVING, Texas -- Jason Garrett loves to talk about having the right kind of guys on the Dallas Cowboys.
Most often that has been defined as choirboys with impeccable comportment, even if it is not true. At the NFL scouting combine, Garrett was asked about the right kind of guy.
“I think it’s critical,” he said. “And there’s so many different levels to that. There’s personal character, there’s football character, there’s work ethic, there’s passion for the game, all those things. And we literally grade the players on that. We grade our own players on that. We grade the players coming into the league on those things. You really have to dig and try to find out what this guy is all about, what makes him tick.
"It’s cliche to say that, but that’s really what we’re trying to do, and we all can watch them run, watch them jump, watch them throw, watch them backpedal, watch them run routes. We can see that. There’s some physical things that guys need to have but then you got to figure out what’s next. What’s behind that? How important is football to them? What kind of person is he? What’s his makeup? I just have a firm belief that the best players I’ve been around are made up of the right stuff and they have the right ability. I get that. But Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin and all those guys were elite, elite people too. They love the game. They wanted to be great players. Jason Witten, Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, they’re the same way. Certainly DeMarco Murray and there’s a number of other guys on our team, Tyron Smith, I hate to even bring up names because there’s so many of them. But we believe strongly in that and you put those guys together and you do things the right way on a daily basis and that gives you a chance to win ballgames.”
The Cowboys will welcome Greg Hardy to Valley Ranch on Tuesday for a free-agent visit, a source confirmed to ESPN Insider Adam Schefter. If all goes well, the Cowboys could have a deal with the 2013 Pro Bowler.
On May 13, 2014, Hardy was arrested and charged with assaulting and threatening to kill ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder. A Mecklenburg (North Carolina) County judge found Hardy guilty on July 15. The verdict was set aside when Hardy requested a jury trial.
All charges were dropped on Feb. 9 because Holder refused to cooperate with the district attorney’s office.
In a statement explaining the decision to dismiss charges, the district attorney's office said it had "reliable information" that Holder and Hardy had reached a civil settlement and that she has "intentionally made herself unavailable to the State."
Hardy remains on the commissioner’s exempt list and could face a possible suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
The Cowboys have done their background on Hardy. At the combine, several team sources were dismissive of potentially adding Hardy via free agency because of the off-field baggage.
So what has changed?
Clearly the price has changed.
As free agency hits its second week, the economics start to shift. No longer is it the players’ market. It’s the teams’ market where bargains start to become the norm.
The Cowboys have factored their need with the potential price and have deemed it worth trying to sew up a deal with Hardy.
Jerry Jones has long viewed himself as a Father Flanagan type. He has been more than willing to take chances others wouldn’t. He did it with Tank Johnson and Adam Jones in 2008. He has done it with Dimitrius Underwood and Alonzo Spellman.
In 2006, he gave another Rosenhaus client, Terrell Owens, a chance after an acrimonious departure from Philadelphia led most teams to stay away from the ultra-talented wide receiver. Owens had three productive seasons with the Cowboys, but his time did not end well.
The NFL is a talent acquisition business. Hardy is extremely talented.
If the Cowboys make this deal, then they are taking a big risk, but they will likely mitigate it with lower-than-expected money.
And that might help fit with their right-kind-of-guy motto.
ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton contributed to this report.
Most significant signing: Like last year, it has been a slow start to free agency for the Dallas Cowboys, with their biggest storylines being their losses. Running back Darren McFadden was signed the day after DeMarco Murray joined the Philadelphia Eagles. It's significant -- not in dollars, since the only guarantee is the $200,000 signing bonus, but in the fact it shows the Cowboys should move to a committee approach in 2015 after Murray had a team-record 392 carries in 2014. The other signings are linebackers Andrew Gachkar and Jasper Brinkley and fullbacks Jed Collins and Ray Agnew III.
Most significant loss: Dallas has lost Justin Durant, Bruce Carter, Henry Melton, Dwayne Harris and Jermey Parnell so far, but the biggest loss, without question, is Murray. He ran for a team-record 1,845 yards and was named the NFL's offensive player of the year in 2014. It's not that the Cowboys didn't want Murray. It's that they wouldn't overextend themselves financially. Dallas would fully guarantee Murray only $12 million to stay. The Eagles gave him $18 million guaranteed at the time of signing. The Cowboys maintained their fiscal discipline in their approach to Murray, but there is no way they ever saw him signing with their NFC East rivals, and that has to hurt at least a little bit.
Biggest surprise: It's Murray jumping to Philadelphia, but to avoid being redundant, let's move on to the contracts Durant, Carter, Harris and Parnell received. They combined to start 26 games in 2014 and earned contracts totaling $28.85 million guaranteed. In the Super Bowl years of the 1990s, teams regularly pilfered Dallas' talent, overpaying players and seeing little return on their investment. There was not a chance the Cowboys would have paid any of those four players close to the contracts they received from their new teams. We'll see over the next few years which side was right in the player evaluations.
What's next? As free agency moves into its second week, it's all about bargain shopping. The big money is largely done. Dallas has yet to address its defensive line, which was the team's stated biggest need of the offseason. The Cowboys could look to re-sign some of their own free agents, such as Anthony Spencer or Nick Hayden, to help fill numbers. They also need cornerback help, even with the claiming of Corey White off waivers. The Cowboys have great confidence in assistant director of player personnel Will McClay and his staff to find contributors at low cost.
McFadden hadn’t averaged better than 3.4 yards per carry in the last three seasons. He has played a full season just once. He has just one 1,000-yard season. According to its analytics, numberfire.com called McFadden the worst running back in the NFL the last three seasons.
So there’s that.
But there’s also McFadden’s pedigree. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft.
Bill Parcells did not invent this philosophy, but he liked to say at one point a lot of people thought highly of this player, so why not take a look?
And that’s what the Cowboys are doing with McFadden. They have guaranteed him only $200,000 in the form of a signing bonus. The better he plays, the more he makes. It is the definition of a prove-it deal.
This is not the first time the Cowboys have pulled a move like this. Heck, this isn’t the first time the Cowboys have done this with a former Raiders disappointment in the last year.
Last July, the Cowboys made a trade with the Baltimore Ravens for linebacker Rolando McClain, who was the eighth overall pick of the 2010 draft for the Raiders. McClain went through three mostly disappointing seasons in Oakland.
McClain retired, decided to return with the Ravens but walked away again. When the Cowboys called last summer, he decided to come back. He started 12 games and had 108 tackles last season.
The talent that made him a top-10 pick was still there. He is a free agent who could still return to the Cowboys.
The Cowboys are hoping McFadden’s talent is still there, too.
“Because of the ups and downs and certainly there were probably a few more downs than ups, people tend to overlook that for 2010 and 2011 among running backs with 300 or more carries, Darren had the highest yards per carry by more than 20 percent over the next guy,” McFadden’s agent, Ian Greengross, said. “So he did have some success. Unfortunately he was injured a lot and he will tell you it wasn’t necessarily the Raiders being the Raiders. It was also Darren himself. He couldn’t stay healthy and he just didn’t have things go his way. He’s not saying it’s the Raiders. He’s not pointing the finger at them.”
The Cowboys have gone this route plenty of times in their past. One of their best examples is on their coaching staff. Marc Colombo was a first-round pick of the Chicago Bears, but injuries curtailed his career there. The Cowboys signed him in 2005 and he became their starter at right tackle from 2006-10.
The Cowboys have three former first-round picks of other teams on their roster. Amobi Okoye, another Greengross client, was the 10th overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Houston Texans, but he has not played in a game since 2012. Brandon Weeden was the 22nd overall pick of the 2012 draft by the Cleveland Browns. Newly signed linebacker Keith Rivers was the ninth overall pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2008 draft.
Another running back in the mix to replace Murray, Ryan Williams, was a second-round pick (No. 38 overall) by the Arizona Cardinals in 2011, but injuries have limited him to five games in his career. He spent last year on the Cowboys’ practice squad.
“When people have a high opinion from the first time they’ve ever rated you as a professional football player, then you already have a head start for that second or third chance if you need it because people always remember what you’ve done,” Greengross said. “Now, the NFL is not a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. It’s a what-are-you-going-to-do-for-me-tomorrow business. But also I think also if they remember that talent is under there and if you go to a place that has been winning and has other talent around you, then it makes it easier for you to bring out your full talents in that new place. The reason they have had the success with the Rolando McClains and some of the others is because the talent is there and rather than that player coming in and being the sole focus of trying to move a team up, they can be a part of a team and move his own game up and then help the team.”
Running back DeMarco Murray couldn't get the money he wanted in Dallas, so the NFL's leading rusher in 2014 signed a free-agent deal with the Eagles.
NFL Nation Cowboys reporter Todd Archer and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan look at the move and its repercussions on both sides of the divide.
Was there a winner in this DeMarco Murray affair? And if so, who was it?
Archer: It might have been strange how the Eagles got there with Frank Gore backing out, but to me, the Eagles have won here. They improved their running game and they weakened a division foe. I think too many people get caught up in the five years, $42 million number for Murray. It's more the first three years of the deal that matter most. I'm not saying the Cowboys should have gone to $21 million guaranteed, but I think they could have gotten this deal done with Murray for $16 million to $18 million guaranteed before the Eagles got into this. I know we are all supposed to say running backs are devalued and you can find a back anywhere, but I do think the Cowboys are underestimating Murray's worth to the team's mindset. You can't put a number on that. Now they have to stop him two times a year. He's a guy who runs angry anyway, but he will be even more angry in those games, I’m sure.
Sheridan: I'd have to give a slight edge to the Eagles on this one. I thought Chip Kelly had underestimated the value of LeSean McCoy in trading the franchise's all-time rushing leader to the Buffalo Bills. But by replacing McCoy with Murray, Kelly certainly made sure there won't be much, or any, drop-off for the Eagles. And while the Cowboys' offensive line was a big reason for Murray's success in 2014, it definitely weakened the Cowboys to see him walk away. If the Cowboys draft a running back, then that's one other hole that won't get filled. So either way, the Cowboys are weaker without Murray. The Eagles aren't necessarily dramatically better replacing McCoy with Murray, but the knock on the Cowboys tips the scale in Philly's favor.
Murray said he was mostly motivated by the chance to win a Super Bowl, implying the Eagles are closer to one than the Cowboys. Is he right? And since the road to an NFC East title for either team goes through the other, where do the Eagles and Cowboys stand right now?
Archer: This is where I have a hard time understanding the mindset of some Cowboys fans who like to chuckle, "The Eagles have never won a Super Bowl, so how does he think he's getting to one with Philly?" So just because the Cowboys last won a Super Bowl in 1995, they will win one again? I don’t get that, but that's me. At the risk of contradicting myself from the first answer, I think the Cowboys still have the better chance to get to the big game, but I'm not sure either team has a great chance. If we're looking at the offenses right now, the Cowboys are better than the Eagles even without Murray. Why? The quarterback. Tony Romo is far, far, far better than Sam Bradford, if he’s the Eagles' guy right now. Romo also has Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and that offensive line. I realize the Eagles added pieces to their defense, but I'm not sold Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso are top-end players.
Sheridan: The Cowboys were ahead of the Eagles in 2014 and, assuming they add more than Darren McFadden in their backfield, they will retain that advantage until the Eagles prove otherwise. I would take the Cowboys' defense over the Eagles' right now. I would take Romo over Bradford, although Bradford has a lot more future ahead of him. I would take Bryant over -- well, I don’t even know who to identify as the Eagles' best receiver right now. Maybe a first-round pick. The Eagles' three-game losing streak in December caused their stock to drop quite a bit. They will have to prove themselves as an improved team this season, and right now, that's a giant question mark.
McCoy won the NFL rushing title in 2013. Murray won it in 2014. Which team is better able to win it in 2015?
Archer: Boy, this is a tough one because right now the Cowboys runners are McFadden, Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams. The Eagles counter with Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. Advantage, Eagles. I'd give the advantage to the Cowboys for the offensive line. And I'd look for the Cowboys to add a runner early in the draft with a Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley or Tevin Coleman type. I'd say the answer right now would be the Eagles. The answer a little later might be the Cowboys. But I do think Murray's team-record 392 carries is safe for a good spell. The Cowboys will be going to a committee approach without him, and the coaches swear they will remain committed to the run even though Murray won't be in the backfield. So they'll hope to get their 2,000 yards on the ground from a number of players rather than most of the yards from just one guy.
Sheridan: I would say the Eagles if their 2013-14 offensive line was coming back intact. With Murray running through the holes McCoy had in 2013, I would give them the edge over a question mark running behind the Cowboys' line. But with the release of Todd Herremans and the apparent intention to trade Evan Mathis, the Eagles have a hole at both guard spots. Without knowing how those will be filled in, I'd have to give the edge to the Cowboys' dominant line, plus whatever rookie running back is lined up behind it. The Eagles are also looking to divide the workload among Murray, Mathews and Sproles, so I doubt any one back will rush for more than 1,500 yards.